Chicos (Spanish for “small) have been a staple of the local diet since the time of the Ancestral Puebloans. They are made by steaming whole ears of corn in the husk and then drying them. The word “chicos” is known in New Mexico, though corn is dried in this manner throughout the southwest. It is a very labor-intensive, time-consuming process.
Labor Intensive, Slow Food
Chicos are prepared in two ways. The first method involves harvesting white or yellow field corn, removing the husks, tying the ears into ristras (strings), and hanging them for a week or two to dry. Once the corn is dry, it is rubbed off the cob and stored.
The second method involves slow roasting the corn overnight in an horno (outdoor adobe oven) with the husk on. The following day the husks are removed and the ears are tied into ristras, and hung outside to dry. Once the kernels are completely dehydrated, they are removed from the cob and stored until ready to use.
The dried kernels are small and wrinkled in appearance, slightly larger than a popcorn kernal. Chicos are cooked until they swell up to their former size, often in combination with beans or winter stews (a handful to a pot). The sun-dried corn has a sweet, fresh flavor. Corn roasted in an horno produces darker kernels, with a slightly smoky flavor.
Chicos are comfort food, whether eaten with beans or added to a stew. In New Mexico the mention of chicos often evokes nostalgia, sentimental reminiscing about family gatherings and a slower time. Such was the case for Olga Atencio, one of the owners of El Parasol in Española. Her family has lived in the Española valley for centuries.
Olga’s grandmother, Noberta Atencio, was born in the 1800s. The small house where she lived was located between the parking lot and where the restaurant is currently located. Olga fondly recalls the family gathering at her grandmother’s house for Christmas Eve. Noberta always had a big pot of chicos simmering on the stove, the aroma wafting through the air. When her grandmother passed away, Olga’s mother, Frances Atencio, carried on the holiday tradition. Olga’s sister continues it today, making Chicos on Christmas Eve for the entire family, savoring a meal that has sustained people in this region for thousands of years.
Fortunately for me, Olga was reminiscing while stirring a pot of chicos, prepared with her grandmother’s recipe. Whereas it isn’t on the menu at El Parasol due to the cost and the inconsistent supply, she was kind enough to share a bowl and the recipe with me.
Servings: 8-10 servings
- 1 pound chicos (available at El Potrero Trading Post)
- 1 ½ pounds bone in pork roast
- 3 cloves of garlic
- ½ onion, whole
- Water to cover. Approx. 10 cups. Add more as needed.
- 5 red chile pods. Whole pods are preferable. Use red chile flakes or powder as an alternative. 1 T = 1 pod.
- Salt to taste
- Put all of the above in a stock pot (or crock pot).
- Bring to a boil, then cook on medium heat for 6-8 hours until the corn is soft, adding more water as needed.
Due to the amount of time and effort involved, there aren’t many farmers producing chicos anymore. Occasionally they can be found at farmers’ markets, old-fashioned general stores, or specialty shops. They are available online from Potrero Trading Post in Chimayo. Potrero is a good resource for red chile as well, including Chimayo heirloom red chile.
I stopped in to stock up on my way home from El Parasol, making a pot of chicos based on Noberta’s recipe immediately. I made one modification, adding extra red chile and a cup of bolita beans (similar to a pinto bean).
Please leave your recipe modifications and/or questions in the comments below.